Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Women dance tanoura

Men have been doing tanoura or “whirling dervish” dances in traditional shows for years. Now it’s the turn of women, writes Omneya Yousry

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Al-Ahram Weekly

When a tanoura dancer spins round, he can appear to be like the sun, with the dancers orbiting around him like the planets. In this spectacular form of traditional dance, associated with Sufi religious orders, the dancers successively untie and remove four different skirts during the finale.

Their spinning symbolises the succession of the seasons in an anti-clockwise movement, reminiscent of circulating around the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca. When the dancers raise their right arms up and point their left arms down, this represents the joining of the earth and heaven together.

As they spin around they enter into a trance-like state, experiencing a sense of lightness that is likened to being in heaven. This form of dancing and the magical atmosphere that goes with it has until recently been reserved for men. But this may now be changing.

Hanaa Moustafa, 30, is Egypt’s first female tanoura dancer. She is married to Sherif Mohamed, himself a tanoura dancer. “I started my career as a member of the folk arts team in the national troupe at the Balloon Theatre in Cairo. I met many men who danced the tanoura, but I never met a woman,” she says.

“So I thought of being the first woman to enter the profession. My husband is a tanoura dancer as well and, in fact, we met at the Balloon Theatre. He took my hand and helped me in my first steps in dancing tanoura, when nobody else accepted to teach me.”

Hanaa’s first show was a surprise. She was part of a large group of dancers. At the end of the show her husband introduced her to the audience to give a solo performance.

“I used to practice on my own before Sherif helped me. The hardest part of the tanoura is avoiding dizziness when spinning around wearing such heavy clothes — mine weigh 25 kilos. You have to keep your balance despite the dynamic centrifugal effect for around 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the programme, and believe me this isn’t easily,” she says.

Working as a tanoura dancer is also not always acceptable for a woman, but Hanaa’s family has been supportive, and the fact that she is also married to a tanoura dancer has let her enter the career more easily than others.

“I’ve been working for 12 years now. I wasn’t always as good as I am now, though from the first I received praise and positive encouragement. Audiences were surprised to see a female dancer, and they didn’t see any difference in performance between me and a male dancer,” she says.

“I have been able to perform many times outside Egypt during my journey with the tanoura, including in France, China, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Korea, Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq. All my shows are special to me and I’m proud of all of them. My proudest moment was when I performed in honour of Egypt when all the ministers attended a show in the Salah Al-Din Citadel in Cairo. The hardest one for me was in France, where I had to do my show on a one-metre stage. I even stumbled in front of the audience.”

Due to the tough political and economic circumstances the country is going through at the moment and the problems of the tourism sector, dancers such as Hanaa and her husband have seen their incomes affected.

“We deal with very few tourism companies nowadays, and we are fighting to survive,” she says. Although Hanaa was the first woman to enter this traditionally male-dominated career, she is not the last: she has encouraged two other young women to follow her path and shatter traditional boundaries.

The performance of the tanoura consists of three parts. First there is an introduction, which is a demonstration of the various musicians and their instruments. Then there is the tanoura presentation dance, a warm-up of sorts that introduces the dancers. And finally there is the dance itself, a traditionally Sufi dance that in Western countries has been called the dance of the “whirling dervishes”.

The philosophical basis for the spinning comes from the Sufi Mawlawi order, whose members say that movement in this world begins at a certain point and ends at the same point and therefore all movement has to be circular.

“The tanoura’s origin lies in the Turkish Mawlawi order, Sufis who used to pray to God when they danced the tanoura,” Hanaa explains. “They used to spin while chanting religious invocations.

“The Sufi tanoura costume is white and lighter than the one made for folk art performances like ours. We add colours to it, and though we start the show with traditional Sufi dancing, including religious chanting, we then proceed to folkloric songs,” she says.


The writer is a freelance journalist.

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